Saturday, 10 August 2013

Western politicians have debased the language - at a cost - over July's coup in Egypt

In 1946, George Orwell wrote in an essay, Politics and the English Language, about the connection between the debasement of language and the debasement of politics: -“Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Some Western politicians and media have debased the English language when describing what happened on 3 July this year in Egypt.  You do not need to be a supporter of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood – and I am not - to be disturbed by this.

On 3 July, Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian military. He has been described as a very bad leader – “divisive, hapless and hopeless.”  However, he had been elected in a free and fair election only one year before, on 30 June 2012. Indeed, he was the first democratically elected leader in the five thousand years of Egypt’s history.

The dictionary defines the overthrow of a democratically elected government by military force as a “coup” but the US, UK and many other Western governments refuse to use the word and instead have resorted to vagueness and euphemism. The reason for this refusal appears to lie in the US legislation which prevents the provision of “aid” to a government that has come to power following a coup. The US gives Egypt $1.15 billion a year in “aid”- almost all of which goes to the military.

Peter Oborne has written of how William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, in his desire to please the US, has “betrayed Britain’s values” by his refusal to admit that what happened in Egypt was a “coup”.
Much of the media have taken their lead from the government. The BBC, for example, has used this ambivalent formulation: - “Mr Morsi was ousted on 3 July in what many have said was a military coup.”

It is not only the word “coup” that has been debased but also the word “democracy”. It is right that voting alone is not sufficient to constitute a democratic system. Other factors are needed too such as the rule of law, respect for minority rights and a free press.  However, much Western comment would suggest to a Morsi supporter that voting - as well as not being sufficient - is not even necessary for democracy. 

On 7 July 2013, Tony Blair in an article in the Observer made clear his support for the overthrow of the democratically elected Morsi government. Ironically, given the size of the demonstration he himself faced against the Iraq War, he laid great store on the size of the anti-Morsi demonstrations. He asserted that there were 17 million people on the street demonstrating against Morsi. He gave no source. The BBC correspondent Wyre Davis has pointed out that only about half a million people can fit into Tahrir Square and BBC Monitoring have not been able to find a proper source for the 17 million figure.

Blair wrote: - “I am a strong supporter of democracy. But democratic government doesn’t on its own mean effective government. Today, efficacy is the challenge. When governments don’t deliver, people protest. They don’t wait for an election…”

Orwell wrote in his Politics and the English Language essay: - “Words of this kind (e.g. democracy) are often used in a consciously dishonest way.  That is the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”  What Blair appears to mean by “democracy” is not at all the same as what is commonly understood by it.

Blair is not alone in Western circles in claiming that a military coup against a democratically elected government was somehow not a “coup” and was actually “democratic”; that it was (to echo the notorious quote from Vietnam) “ necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.”

The likely result of the debasement of the English language will be, as Orwell warned, debasement of politics. In this case, it will be the prospects of the world's fledgling democracies that will suffer most.

No comments:

Post a Comment